As a result of the fight between Fiji and the Solomn Islands about landing rights, there were no flights between Fiji and the Solomon Islands when we got off the boat on Tuesday morning. Tonga was next on our journey (to see the humpback whales), and we had to be back in Nadi, Fiji, by Wednesday night to catch our flight. Our Solomon Island visas also expired on Friday, so we couldn’t extend our stay in the Solomons until the next flight to Vanuatu on Saturday, and the airlines had given up trying to help the affected passengers and were basically just giving people refunds and telling them to make their own plans. Our only option was to catch the next flight to Australia (Brisbane) that afternoon and immediately fly to New Zealand, as Australia only allows you to transit for a maximum of 8 hours without a visa, whereas New Zealand gives South Africans a visa on arrival. We headed to Wellington for one night, where we had booked a flight on Wednesday afternoon to Fiji in time to catch our Tongan flight (not a cheap exercise).
The first thing that struck us about New Zealand was the friendliness of everyone, from Immigration and Customs to the guy selling bus tickets and taxi drivers. Everyone was giving us good advice on what to see and do, and what isn’t worth it. It is the friendliest place we’ve been, even incuding Vanuatu. Wellington itself is a very pretty little town at the south end of North Island, with beautiful hills surrounding several natural harbours and the Cook Straight between the two main islands. It is also incredibly windy, and averages 173 days a year of winds over 45 km/h! Everything in New Zealand also seems to be quite relaxed, and it has a bit of an alternative feel to it, and we immediately felt at home. People here are also very relaxed about personal security – we often saw groups of people leave everything on a bar counter (including handbags & mobile phones) while they went out for a smoke. There are also a lot of beards.
With about 4 hours to go before our flight to Fiji, we got an email from Craig, a South African ex-pat running the whale watching tours in Tonga, letting us know that the weather forecast in Tonga for the next week was not great, with high winds meaning that the whale tours were very unlikely. As this was the main reason for heading to Tonga, we made a snap decision to rather stay a week in New Zealand so that Anne could try to see a hobbit in the wild, and skip Tonga entirely. Unfortunately we were too late to get refunds on several flights, but we found a cheap flight to Queenstown the following morning, and so soon found ourselves amongst the snowy peaks and lakes of South Island! For those who knew about the Marmite and Peppermints crisps we’d been lugging around for Craig, don’t worry, we managed to post them to him.
Queenstown is the self-declared adventure capital of the southern hemisphere, offering everything including bungee jumping, brige swinging, parachuting, paragliding, heli-skiing, skiing, white-water rafting, a shark-shaped boat (seriously – have a look at this: http://www.hydroattack.co.nz), canyon jet boating and frisbee golf (not 100% convinced about the last one). It’s not cheap, with most activities costing between NZD100 to 200 (90 – 180 USD), but there’s certainly enough to keep you busy. There are also lots of bars and restaurants all over town, ranging from quite large bars and pubs to small little places hidden away down side streets.
We were mainly interested in the skiing at the four small resorts near Queenstown. Due to the very mild winter they were having, only the two higher resorts, Cardrona and The Remarkables, had reasonable conditions, so we headed there. The resorts are small by European standards, with only 4 chairlifts each, but there was enough skiing for a day each, which was perfect for our unconditioned bodies. The first day was at Cardrona, which unfortunately had to end a bit early when the already very strong winds started heading towards 90 km/h, forcing the closure of the chairlifts. We had much better conditions at The Remarkables, thanks to beautiful sunshine, no wind and a fair amount of fresh snow. Skiing in NZ is quite different from Europe, with all the resorts a 30 – 90 minute bus ride away, instead of you actually staying at the resort. Queuing for chairlifts is also much more civilised, with a (always) friendly New Zealander selecting groups of skiers in the queues to make sure the chairlifts are all full. All in all, a great change from our previous weeks of sun and sea!
Whilst in Queenstown, we also got to go on the Shotover Canyon Jet Boat, a fast and exciting (but freezing) 25 mins ride through a narrow canyon, complete with 360 degree spins and some screaming Chinese tourists, and the Skyline Gondola, which has great views of the surrounding mountains and the 75km long lake that Queenstown sits on (Lake Wantapu, or something). We wanted to do a bit more but we had a few days of crappy weather where all activities had to be cancelled. We also got to watch the Superrugby final between the Waratahs from Australia and the Crusaders from New Zealand. As Queenstown is full of Australians, this provided some interesting interactions between the supporters of the two teams. At the end of a very exciting game with the lead changing several times, the Waratahs managed a last minute penalty goal to win by 1 point. The result meant that Anne managed to win the Superbru pool we were taking part in with our friends, with me sneaking into 3rd place. We are looking forward to seeing the trophy in our lounge when we get back home. Unfortunately we did not get to see any hobbits, despite most places having some signs to do with Middle Earth. Anne is beginning to suspect that they may be as mythical as manatees.
We’ve now started on what can only be described as the New Great Trek, as we head to Palau for our next scuba diving adventure. We left Queenstown on the morning flight to Auckland, where we have a 14 hour stopover, before catching the 2am 3hr flight to Fiji, followed by 4.5 hour stop over and a 10.5 hour flight to Hong Kong, arriving at 4pm on Wednesday, and then a 6 hour stopover and a 2 hour flight to Manila in the Philippines, arriving there at midnight. We have 2 days to recover in Manila, before our final flight to Palau on Friday evening at 9:45pm. There is a good chance only one of us will survive.